Recent advances in brain imaging have made it possible to map brain activity in areas of tissue less than a millimeter in size. This resolution offers particular advantages for studying the brain’s outer surface, the cortex. The cortex is traditionally divided into several layers, each containing different types and arrangements of neurons. New high-resolution machines can now visualize the activity in individual layers of cortex, and this can reveal whether the layers also have different roles.
Using high-resolution brain scanning, we showed that bottom-up and top-down processing occur in different layers of visual cortex. Healthy volunteers viewed a series of images while lying inside a brain scanner. We changed the contrast of the images to alter the volunteers’ bottom-up processing: this affected activity in the middle layer of visual cortex. To adjust their top-down processing, the volunteers were asked to attend to different features of the images on different trials: these changes in attention had more effect in the layers on either side of the middle layer. This suggests that bottom-up processing occurs in the middle layer of visual cortex, whereas top-down processing take place in the layers above and below.
These findings will help to better interpret activity in cortical layers using modern brain imaging techniques. With further technological improvements, it may become possible to image each layer in the brain in more detail, in particular for other areas that support complex cognitive processes.

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